Herzog’s Vietnam masterwork is the best film so far this year.
For film fans, the name Werner Herzog and the quote “touching narrative filmmaking” might rarely be said in the same sentence. Over the years, Herzog has achieved his own niche in global cinema as a maverick of the German New Wave cinema movement. Although he has gained a loyal following amongst the art house cinema crowd, he’s not exactly the guy you’d generally expect to be directing a Hollywood war pic with Batman as the lead. But here we are…
Although using the term “obsessed” might seem a bit extreme, Werner Herzog has obviously felt compelled enough by the amazing story of German-born American Vietnam War pilot Dieter Dengler to have now devoted two entire films to his story.
A decade ago, Herzog directed the German television documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dengler’s story as he was shot down on his very first mission, only to be captured by Vietnamese soldiers and placed in a P.O.W. camp. As conditions worsened, Dengler eventually compelled the other captured soldiers to aid him in a daring escape.
Now Dengler’s journey is being brought to the masses in the grand ole’ Hollywood tradition. Stepping into the role of Dengler is Christian Bale, who is perhaps known best as playing the titular role in 2005’s Batman Begins. He also happens to be one of the finest actors of this generation. Joining Bale is a supporting cast that includes Jeremy Davies and, in the most unlikely casting choice, Steve Zahn.
If seeing the name Werner Herzog’s attached to this project has made you a little tepid, have no fear. Rescue Dawn bares little resemblance to the usual tenets of German New Wave cinema. Instead, in a Vietnam War Movie genre as overcrowded as it is, Rescue ranks as one of the best portrayals of the conflict ever committed to celluloid. For my money, it sits right alongside classics like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon and Full Metal Jacket.
Almost from the opening frame, Rescue Dawn is a riveting watch. Dengler is not the rough and tumble soldier we are used to seeing portrayed in a war movie. Quite simply, he loves to fly and he loves the American army for giving him the chance to fulfill his life’s greatest ambition. Although his flying career winds up being quite brief, Dengler’s convictions remain strong. When he’s brought in to see one of the Vietnam Generals before entering the camp, he’s asked to sign a document condemning America’s participation in the conflict. Dengler refuses and he’s thrown into the camp.
The strong-willed Dengler is immediately thinking about escape, but his beaten-down cellmates have already had their wills broken. They figure Dengler will eventually realize it’s hopeless and settle down to complacency.
But he never does. He finally wrangles the group for a death-defying escape sequence that had my eyes glued to the screen; right up there with the escape scenes in Stalag 17 and The Great Escape.
Jeremy Davies is nearly unrecognizable as “Gene From Eugene,” a half-crazed POW who thinks the conflict should be coming to an end any day now and they will be released. Davies is excellent in the small role.
Steve Zahn, whose cinematic repertoire includes entries such as Stuart Little, Daddy Day Care and Saving Silverman, is an unlikely choice to say the least. But, as they often say, there is a sad clown waiting inside every comedian and Zahn proves the rule here once again. He’s terrific as Duane, perhaps the only man in the camp besides Dengler who still has a strong head on his shoulders. You feel for Duane and you come to understand and identify with his character.
Bale knocks the role out of the park as he has done so often. He completely invests himself into the role of Dieter Dengler and thereby loses his Batman persona in a very touching performance. By the end of the movie, he looks pretty gaunt (luckily not as much so as in The Machinist), but that’s only icing on the cake. Bale sells the look of a man racing for his life and living off the jungles of Vietnam, weight loss or not.
Herzog’s achievement here is not to be overlooked. His direction is steady and smart. For those who may condemn Herzog towards the pretentious, this is a major departure. Here he takes audiences through the full spectrum of human emotions, an exhausting, rewarding and unforgettable experience.
Rescue Dawn releases in only five theaters on July 4th. Why? That’s a question I’ve been asking with no sufficient answer. Besides the perfect timing of a patriotic release on the July 4th holiday, it’s a nice piece of alternative summer fare for those who might not be thrilled about giant robots, cooking rats or explosions in general. It’s a great film that stands as the best release thus far in 2007. I can only hope the notoriously short attention-spanned Academy remembers it come awards season.